Notebook

Notebook, 1993-

'Sincerity and Authenticity'

Trilling, Lionel. Sincerity and Authenticity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press. 1972

IV. The Heroic, the Beautiful,
the Authentic - [cont.]


ii
The idea of sincerity can of course never be far from our thoughts when we speak of either Rousseau or Wordsworth. It does not, however, bear upon their ontological concern, their preoccupation with the sentiment of being, or at least it does not do so in the first instance. I remarked earlier that it would be only absurd to suggest of the patriarch Abraham that he was or was not a sincere man. It would be similarly absurd to undertake an assessment of the sincerity of thr protagonist of Wordsworth's poem Michael, who, like Abraham, was a shepherd, a father, and very old. The poem comes to its climax in a single line which no one who has read it ever forgets: when Michael, after having lost his son Luke to the corruption of the city, continues to build the sheepfold which he and the boy had ceremonially begun together, his neighbours report of [p. 92] him that sometimes he sat the whole day 'And never lifted up a single stone'. It would go beyond absurdity, it would be a kind of indecency, to raise the queston of the sincerity of this grief even in order to affirm it. Indeed, the impossibility of our raising such a question is of the essence of our experience of the poem. Michael says nothing; he expresses nothing. It is not the case with him as it is with Hamlet that he has 'that within which passeth show'. There is no within and without: he and his grief are one. We may not, then, speak of sincerity. But our sense of Michael's being, of--so to speak--his being-in-grief, comes to us as a surprise, as if it were exceptional in its actuality, and valuable. And we are impelled to use some word which denotes the nature of this being and whch accounts for the high value we put upon it. The word we employ for this purpose is 'authenticity'.

It is a word of omnious import. As we use it in reference to human existence, its provenance is the museum, where persons expert in such matters test whether objects of art are what they appear to be or are claimed to be, and therefore worth the price that is asked for them--or, if this has already been paid, worth the admiration they are being given. That the word has become part of the moral slang of our day points to the peculiar nature of our fallen condition, our anxiety over the credibility of existence and of individual existences. An eighteenth-century aesthician states our concern succintly--'Born Originals,'Edward Young said, 'how come it to pass that we die Copies?'

No one has much difficulty with the asnwer to this question. From Rousseau we learned that what destroys our authenticity is society--our sentiment of being depends on the opinion of other people. The ideal of authentic personal being stands at the very centre of Rousseau's thought. Yet I think that its presence there, however forcible [p. 93] it may have seemed to Rousseau's contemporaries, is rather too abstract, or too moderate, to command the modern imagination. The authenticity which the First Discourse ascribes to pre-social man seems to us to consist in his merely being not inauthentic; the authenticity which Rousseau ascribes to the bourgeois republican of Geneva is defined by his not beng a Parisian, or, at its most vivid, by his having a week-end cottage, a gun, and some friends to drink and shoot with. Nowadays our sense of what authenticity means involves a degree of rough concreteness or of extremity which Rousseau, with his abiding commitment to an ideal of patrician civililty, does not give us but which Wordsworth pre-eminently does. Michael is as actual, as hard, dense, weighty, perdurable as any stone he lifts up or lets lie.

To one of Wordsworth's epiphanies of authentic being Coleridge took strong exception--'The Idiot Boy', he said, is inevitably offensive to the sensibilities of the reader. This is an opinion with which we are at present less in agreement than we might once have been; yet the poem still provokes resistance in us. But when we admire it, as we should, we cannot fail to see that its offensiveness is part of its intention. That this is so suggests that authenticity is implicitly a polemical concept, fulfilling its nature by dealing aggressively with received and habitual opinion, aesthetic opinion in the first instance, social and political opinion in the next. One topic of its polemic, which has reference to both aesthetic and social opinion, is the error of the view that beauty is the highest quality to which art may aspire.

Something can be learned about the ideal of authenticity in its relation to beauty by calling to mind the artistic quality that is--or was--known as the sublime. The sublime and the authentic are certainly not equivalent, but they have one trait in common, a settled anatagonism to beauty. When Edmund Burke undertakes his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, he is perfectly forthright about the social import of the opposition he sets up between the two qualties that high art may have. This brilliant young man from the provinces with a career to make and the firmest intention of making it leaves us in no doubt that his aesthetic preference, his choice of the sublime as against the beautiful, is dictated by his sense of how society is constituted and of how it may be dominated and made to serve his purpose, and by his commitment to the energies of his genius. He explicitly connects the sublime with masculinity, with manly ambition; the defining characteristic of the sublime, he tells us, is its capacity for arousing the emotion of 'terror', which calls forth in us the power to meet and master it; the experience of terror stimulates an energy of aggression and dominance. Beauty, on the contrary, is to be associated with femininity. It seduces men to inglorious indolence and ignoble hedonism. Burke's account of what happens to the masculine organism under the deleterious influence of beauty makes what is perhaps the only funny passage in the long canon of aesthetic theory. Beauty, it tells us, is that quality of an object which excites love; it acts 'by relaxing the solids of the whole system' of the viewer, to this effect: 'The head reclines something on one side; the eyelids are more closed than usual, and the eyes roll gently with an inclination to the object, the mouth is a little opened, and the breath drawn slowly, with now and then a low sigh: the whole body is composed, and the hands fall idly to the sides. All this is accompanied with an inward sense of melting and languor.'

Burke's denigration of beauty in favour of the energy called forth by the sublime put its mark on much of the [p. 95] aesthetic theory of the following age. Schiller, for example, under the influence of the Philosophical Enquiry, proposed that beauty has two modes: one is 'melting beauty', which relaxes our physical and moral nature, the other is 'energizing beauty', which, by confronting us with difficult, harsh and even disagreeable experiences, increases our 'elasticity and power of prompt action'. Both modes of beauty, he tells us, aid in the development of man, the usefulness of each of them depending upon the condition of culture at a given time. Schiller, writng his Aesthetic Letters between 1793 and 1801, inclined to the view that energy was the order of the day. 'The man who lives under the indulgent sway of taste is in need of energizing beauty; he is only too ready, once he has reached a state of sophisticated refinement, to trivle away the strengh he brought with him from the state of savagery.'

We are once more reminded of the part played by Rousseau in the aesthetic revolution of the later eighteenth century. Burke is the legendary antagonist of Rousseau, Schiller his disciple, but both men are responding to his denunciation of the arts for their intention of pleasing. It was this, we have seen, that made the arts, for Rousseau the paradigm of society in its characteristic deterioration of the sentiment of being. When Burke says, 'I call Beauty a social quality', he means pretty much what Rosseauy meant when he said that the arts have the effect of socializing men, which is to say, of making them passive and acquiescent. But where both Burke and Schiller part company with Rousseau is in perceiving that the arts can have an intention and effect other than that of pleasing, that they can serve some other purpose than that of indulging their audience.

Here we should perhaps take a note of a slight semantic complication. One connotation of the word 'please' tends [p. 96] to limit its use to objects which are relatively small either in size or import, those to which 'taste' can appropriately be applied; Burke specifically makes smallness an attribute of beauty. Another connotaton of 'please' suggests the idea of social ingratiation. But the word 'pleasure' can repel these ignoble meanings and suggest others of greater dignity, doubtless because of its habitual association with the word 'pain' and also because of the actual intefusion of pleasure and pain [a matter to which Burke gives considerable attention]; as a consequence, pleasure persists for a long time in aestheic theory as the proper end of art. The sublime does not please; but it does give pleasure, at least so far as pleasure is synonymous with gratification: it produces, Burke says, 'a sort of swelling and triumph that is extremely grateful to the human mind'. Not until our own time will critics give up trying to justify art by the pleasure it gives and even be willing to say, as Susan Sontag does, that pleasure has nothing to do with the artistic experience. [Miss Sontag limits her disjunction of pleasure and the artistic experience to her view of a proper response to works of our present period [Against Interpretation, New York, 1966; London, 1967, pp. 302-3]. My essay 'The Fate of Pleasure' [Beyond Culture, New York and London, 1965] deals with the present status of pleasure in relation to art.] This view, which takes us a little but not wholly aback, has had its ground prepared by two centuries of aestheic theory and artistic practice which have been less and less willing to take account of the habitual preferences of the audience. The artist--as he comes to be called--ceases to be the craftsman or the performer, dependent upon the approval of the audience. His reference is to himself only, or to some tranascendent power which--or who--has decreed his enterprise and alone is worthy to judge it.

We rightly speak of this change as a revolution. And, having done so, it seems natural to connect it with social revolution: down goes the audience, up comes the artist: [p. 97] ' bas, les lecteurs-- la lanterne!' But actually the situation is considerably more complex than that. In The Mirror and the Lamp, his admirable account of the aesthetic revolution, M. H. Abrams speaks of the fate of the audience as being a 'drastic' one, and so it is. But this fate does not consist simply in the loss of its old status and privileges; something is gained as well as lost--something is gained through the loss. The fate is as paradoxical as it is drastic: if down goes the audience it is a Fortunate Fall that it takes; the loss of its Eden of gratified desire brings with it covenants of redemption and the offer of a higer, more significant life. Certainly the modern audience does not seem to regret having had to exchange indulgence and flattery for the exigencies of its new relation to art. On the contrary, the devotion now given to art is probably more fervent than ever before in the history of culture. This devotion takes the form of an extreme demand: now that art is no longer required to please, it is expected to provide the spiritual substance of life. As for the artist, even while he asserts his perfect autonomy and regards his audience with indifference, or with hostility and contempt, he is sustained by the certitude that he alone can provide what the audience most deeply needs. [I am aware that this description of the relation of the audience to the art of its own day is anachronistic. It applies to the audience and art of the period which is now called 'Modern' by the historians of culture and understood by them to be in the past and succeeded by a period which they call 'Post-Modern'. At the present moment, art cannot be said to make exigent demands upon the audience. That segment of our culture which is at all responsive to contemporary art is wholly permeable by it. The situation no longer obtains in which the experience of a contemporary work begins in resistance and proceeds by relatively slow stages to comprehending or submissive admiration. The artist now can make scarcely anything which will prove really exigent to the audience, which will outrage its habitual sensibility. The audience likes or does not like, is pleased or not pleased--the faculty of 'taste' has re-established itself at the centre of the experience of art. ] [p. 99]

An initial difficulty arises because the audience is not readily conscious of what it wants of the artist and of how much it has come to rely upon him. Yet in the end there is no failure of communication. What the audience demands of the artist--really demands, its unconscious desire--and what the artist thinks it ought to be given turns out to be the same thing. We know, of course, what that is: it is the sentiment of being. A synonym for the sentiment of being is that 'strength' which, Schiller tells us, 'man brought with him from the state of savagery' and which he finds it so difficult to preserve in a highly developed culture. The sentiment of being is the sentiment of being strong. Which is not to say powerful: Rousseau, Schiller, and Wordsworth are not concerned with energy directed outward upon the world in aggression and dominance, but, rather, with such energy as contrives that the centre shall hold, that the cicumference of the self keep unbroken, that the person be an integer, impenetrable, perdurable, and autonomous in being if not in action. [Here, of course, Schiller differs from Burke, who, as we have seen, set store by the 'ambition' to which art, in the mode he most admired, gives rise.]

And through the nineteenth century art has as one of its chief intentions to induce in the audience the sentiment of being, to recruit the primitive strength that a highly developed culture has diminished. To this end it proposes a variety of spiritual exercises, among which are suffering and despair and cosmic defiance; conscious sympathy with the being of others; comprehenson of the processes of society; social alienation. As the century advances the sentiment of beng, of being strong, is increasingly subsumed under the conception of personal authenticity. The work of art is itself authentic by reason of its entire self-definition: it is understood to exist wholly by the laws of its own being, which include the right to embody painful, [p. 99] ignoble, or socially inaccptable subject-matters. Similarly the artist seeks his personal authenticity in his entire autonomousness--his goal is to be as self-defining as the art-object he creates. As for the audience, its expectatin is that through its communication with the work of art, which may be resistant, unpleasant, even hostile, it acquires the authenticity of which the object itself is the model and the artist the personal example. When, in Satre's La Nause, the protagonist Roquentin, at the end of his diary of queasy despair, permits himself to entertain a single hope, it is that he may write a story which will be 'beautiful and hard as steel and make people ashamed of their existence'. The authentic work of art instructs us in our inauthenticity and adjures us to overcome it.

Sartre's admired younger colleague Nathalie Sarraute observes in her essay on Flaubert that the quality which 'today we call "inauthenticity"' and with which every one is on such familiar terms was once 'a new psychic substance'; we owe its discovery to Flaubert, who 'unearthed' or 're-created' it in Madame Bovary. It is this quality which wholly characterizes the protagonist of the novel. 'We all remember', Mme Sarraute says, 'that trompe loil universe, the world seen through the eyes of Madame Bovary: her desires, her imaginings, the dreams on which she seeks to build her existence, all of which are made up of a succession of cheap images drawn from the most debased, discredited forms of romanticism. One has only to recall her adolescent day-dreams, her marriage, her love or luxury, her vision of the lives lived by the "upper crust", of "artistic and Bohemian circles" of Parisian life, all roles that she was continually playing for others and for herself and which were based on the most platitutdinous of conventions.'

This, of course, says nothing new about Madame Bovary; [p. 100] it is the accepted thing to say about her. I believe that it is not wholly accurate and that this poor doomed Emma, although inauthenticity certainly does touch her, is not a being of no actuality or worth whatever. She is not, it can be granted, a person of the finest development, but her endowment is not to be despised. She has a degree of courage, although of an imprudent sort, an attractive presence, a sexuality which is urgent when once it is aroused, an imagination which kindles to the idea of experience and envisions a society in which people are interesting and valued, and a will to overcome the nullilty of her existence and to make, or seize, what is called a life. Doubtless something is lacking in her temperament, but not everything, and not enough to justify the condescension with which most readers think they ought to regard her. But I quote Mme Sarraute's version of the received view because its relentlessly censorious tone suggests the moral intensity we now direct upon questons of authenticity. The unhappy Emma Bovary was authentic at least in being unhappy to the point of distraction and in the peculiar horror of her death, but such inauthenticity as is rightly to be attributed to her makes it impossible for Mme Sarraute to give the forlorn creature even a wry compassion. A similar harshness of judgement informs Mme Sarraute's fiction, begining with her first book, Tropismes, a work which induces us to wonder why this gifted and imperious author should choose as the objects of her fierce discernment such little, and so to speak, merely incidental persons as she depicts, whose existences, as minuscule as they are inauthentic, need not, we might suppose, impinge upon hers in any signficant way. Why does she descend from the height of her privileged state of being to make explicit her disgust at the nothingness of these persons who, as the title of the work proposes, are not persons at all? [p. 101]

The answer is to be found in the famous sentence with which Sartre concludes his vision of the modern damnation, Huis Clos: 'Hell is other people.' This maxim is uttered by a detestable self-deceiver and it is by no means the one that the play would enforce, which is, rather ,the Miltonic 'Myself am Hell'. But it makes the significant modern qualification of the older primary truth--it proposes the infernal oucome of the modern social existence as Rousseau described and deplored it, in which the sentiment of individual being depends upon other people. All other people, the whole commuity up and down the scale of sentience and of cultural development, make the Hell of recognized and experienced inauthenticity. They make the inhabited nothingness of the modern world. They speak to us of our own condition; we are members one of another. Certain exemptions are made: the poor, the oppressed, the violent, the primitive. But whoever occupies a place in the social order in which we ourselves are situated is known to share the doom. It does not matter how small the place is, just so it be tenable: when Sartre undertakes to examine an example of inauthentic being, he chooses a person as little and as merely incidental as any of the subjects of Tropismes --that notorious waiter of his who sees himself not as a human being but as a waiter and finds his fulfillment in acting out his assigned role. 'We are all ill', Freud said. No less are we all inauthentic.

It isn't, then, hardness of heart that makes Mme Sarraute speak of Emma Bovary with harsh contempt; it is fear--the terror, as Sartre defines it in an essay on Mme Sarraute, of the Hell of dehumanization that inauthenticity is. She has, Sartre says, 'a protoplasmic vision of our interior universe: roll away the stone of the commonplace and we find discharges, slobberings, mucus; hesitant amoeba-like movements.' By the word 'commonplace'--'this excellent word'--sartre means to designate 'our most hackneyed thoughts, inasmuch as these thoughts have become the meeting-place of the community'. And he goes on: 'It is here that each of us finds himself swell as the others. The commonplace belongs to everybody and it belongs to me; in me, it belongs to everybody; it is the presence of everybody in me. In its very essence it is generality; in order to appropriate it, an act is necesary, an act through which I shed my particularity in order to adhere to the general, in order to become generality. Not at all like everybody, but, to be exact, the incarnation of everybody.' This is Hell, and no aspect of it so cruel as the devices of illusion by which it frustrates our efforts to extricate ourselves from the generality of the commonplace and to stand forth in the authenticity of particular being. If Madame Bovary receives less compassion than her fate claims, if we put ourselves at a distance from her, by condescension as many do, by harsh contempt as Mme Sarraute does, it is because some attitude must be devised which controls the fear which arises in us at the fate of this poor damned soul who, seeking to escape the Hell that was the commonplace of Yonville, enters the Hell that was the commonplace of the high culture of her nation. If we do not put the distance of condescension or contempt between us and her, we shall have to know that when Flaubert said, 'Madame Bovary--c'est moi', he was not making a preposterous paradox. We shall have to understand that Madame Bovary is each one of us.

'Points have we all of us within our souls / Where all stand single.' Wordsworth said this in 1805 and the passage of time has not, it would seem, diminished the powerful charm of these points of singleness. But how are they to be reached? Mme Sarraute, although she is very grand in what she says about the nave purposes of the genre of the novel in the age before our own, does not liberate herself--does [p. 103] not wish to--from the pedagogic function that the novel traditionally discharged. No less than Jane Austen she is concernrd to teach her readers how they are not to be if they really wish to be. It is easy at least to understand how not to be: we must not be like anyone else. But how does one actually proceed to this end? Our spirits fail when we are told by Mme Sarraute that, with the single exception of Madame Bovary, Flaubert himself is inauthentic in all his novels. But at least the artist can, on some occasions, evade the general Hell. He does so, Mme Sarraute says, by his intransigent subjectivity, 'purged of all impurities' of convention and tradition, by refusing the commonplaces that the culture treacherously provides for his convenience and comfort. We of the audience, however, are in less fortunate case.

Accordng to Mme Sarraute, the inauthenticity of Emma Bovary consists in her using as the stuff of her dreams the 'cheap images drawn from the most debased, discredited forms of romanticism'. Would Madame Bovary, we wonder, have lived a more authentic life, would her sentiment of being have more nearly approached singleness and particularity, if at the behest of a more exigent taste she had chosen as the stuff of her dreams the well-made, expensive images of a more creditable form of romanticism? Will not any art--the most certifiedly authentic, the most shaming--provide sustenance for the inauthenticity of those who consciously shape their experience by it? It was the peculiar inauthenticity which comes from basing a life on the very best cultural objects that Nietzsche had in mind when he coined the terrible phrase, 'culture-Philistine'. What he means by this is the inversion of the bourgeois resistance to art which we usually call Philistinism; he means the use of the art and thought of high culture, of the higest culture, for purposes of moral acreditation, which in our time announces itself in the facile acceptance of the shame that art imputes and in the registration of oneself in the company of those who, because they see themselves as damned, are saved.

Rousseau is not mocked. The arts no longer seek to 'please', but pleasing was never the only techncique of seduction, and art can still lead us into making the sentiment of our being dependent upon the opinion of others. The concerted effort of a culture or of a segment of a culture to achieve authenticity generates its own conventions, its generalities, its commonplaces, its maxims, what Sartre, taking the word from Heidegger, calls the 'gabble'. To the gabble Sartre has himself by now made his contribution. As has Mme Sarraute; as did Gide; as did Lawrence--as must anyone who undertakes to satisfy our modern demand for reminders of our fallen state and for reasons why we are to be ashamed of our lives. [p. 105]




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